Practical Philosophy in Memoirs, Pt 3

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

When Martha Stettinius’ mother became ill, Stettinius was forced to enter a world she would certainly never have entered voluntarily. Once inside, she learned much, about her relationship with her mother, her own compassion and willingness to help, and the impact the disease is having on her community.

When Stettinius lived through the events, she had to cope with the challenges and setbacks. When she turned the events into a memoir, Inside the Dementia Epidemic, she offers two important aspects of her experience  — her journey as a caregiver and her journey as a writer. By reading the memoir closely and thinking about what I’ve read, I draw lessons from both aspects.

In my previous post, I proposed two practical ideas that are embedded inside the author’s story of caring for her mother. Today, I describe two more healing notions. These philosophical points are apparent when I step back and consider the passion and effort that Martha Stettinius poured into this project. By turning her complex, often-painful experience into the shape of a memoir, she offers a path others can follow.

Practical Philosophy Point #3: The container of Story helps transcend suffering
Before writing a memoir, my entire life was contained in the raw collection of my memories. The limitations of memory seemed so natural and normal, I didn’t question them. However, after I learned about memoir writing, I began writing anecdotes and watched a narrative take shape on the page. Having embarked on this mission, I realized that memory provides a haphazard, emotionally inadequate way to understand my own past.

One reason why memories are inferior to writing can be found in the way our brains are constructed. In order to keep us safe, our brains are loaded with trigger points that set our teeth on edge as soon as an unpleasant memory comes into view. Another reason memories are inadequate is that they are stored in random order. When we remember our past, the sequence is jumbled and it’s difficult to remember how one thing led to another. As a result of these two features of memory, we tend to see our past as a collage of emotionally-loaded snapshots.

A memoir writer extracts this raw material from its messy piles and through hours of craft converts it into a well-constructed story. Stories are the containers that humans have invented to help structure the past, and the future, into a coherent whole. By the time a memoir has been structured, revised and polished, these same events are seen as steps along a purposeful path.

Martha Stettinius applied this process to her own experience. She constructed a story from the events of caring for her mother. On the pages of her manuscript, she reveals the purposeful courage to support her mother. She becomes the hero of the journey rather than its victim. By transforming the mundane reality of caregiving for Alzheimer’s into a Story, she offers us the image of a woman who discovers truths, overcomes difficulty, and finds love in the gritty spaces between challenges. By sharing the memoir with us, Stettinius elevates our imagination to that same hope that stories have been lifting us to since the beginning of time.

Practical Philosophy Point #4: Memoir transforms private experience into public service
To care for her mother, Stettinius was forced to learn about the stages and treatment of the disease. She reached out to the caregiving community where she found support not only for her mother but for herself. With their help, she learned and grew, gradually becoming a sophisticated partner in her mother’s care.

As the long, harsh journey continued, Martha Stettinius knew things she wished someone had told her when she started. She wanted to share this knowledge with others. This generous impulse required another round of learning. She would have to extend her expertise from caring for Alzheimer’s to writing about it. This attempt became a journey in its own right. She had to improve her skills sufficiently to craft a readable book. By attempting to write a memoir, she would provide information as well as solace to those who entered the dementia epidemic.

The instinct to seek community through the act of storytelling lies at the heart of the Memoir Revolution. Memoir readers want to deeply understand how others have lived. However, they don’t want to learn about someone who meandered through life. A good story has passion and forward motion. So every memoir author must go on the journey to shape their experience. In the publishable book, the protagonist moves purposefully through setbacks, carrying readers along to some goal.

The purposeful experience of the protagonist in a story follows the advice of psychologist Viktor Frankl. In his memoir Man’s Search for Meaning, he observed that living with purpose makes the difference between life and death, health and disease. He said that to stay healthy all of us need to live for something greater than ourselves.

Every memoir author attempts to follow Viktor Frankl’s advice, not once but twice. First they look back at life and highlight the purpose that drove them from the beginning of the book to the end. And second, they following the purpose of sharing this experience with the world.

Martha Stettinius’ memoir embodies such a two-stage search for a purpose. First she had to care for her mother while maintaining dignity and love. Second, she had  to share her wisdom with the world. By writing the memoir, Inside the Dementia Epidemic, Stettinius transforms, Alzheimer’s Disease, one of the great challenges of the twenty first century, into Memoir, one of the new century’s most exciting creative developments, converting her mother’s illness into a message of healing and community

The construction of this book demonstrates that by writing a memoir, each of us can transform life experience from a sequence of events into a purposeful story. Constructing the story lets us exert authorial control over the messy process of being human. Giving the story to others allows readers to see the world through our eyes. They can use stories as they see fit: to increase empathy, to create community, to learn information, and to increase collective wisdom.


Martha Stettinius’ home page

Inside the Dementia Epidemic on Amazon

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

Order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

David W. Berner, author of the memoir “Accidental Lessons” should have been satisfied with his successful career as a newscaster. Instead he hated chasing the latest sensational story in order to increase ratings. His distaste for his work infected his marriage. His wife couldn’t stand living in the shadow of this hollow man and so, they parted.

The memoir “Accidental Lessons” begins with the demolition of David W. Berner’s life and for the rest of the book, he builds himself up. He goes back to school to earn teaching credentials and he takes a job in a public high school. As a beginning teacher, he makes freshman mistakes with students, and when he tries to date a young woman, he behaves like an amateur there, too.

Can a beginner be a hero?

When I read a thriller, I expect the hero to know exactly what to do. However, I enjoy memoirs for the opposite reason. The protagonists of most memoirs are beginners whose journey is paved with mistakes. That’s the case in Coming of Age stories which are, by definition, about beginners. Children in blockbusters like Jeanette Walls in “Glass Castle” must make the journey from helplessness to adulthood. Readers cheer her, not because of her expertise, but because of her vulnerability.

Children are not the only beginners. Adults often find themselves starting over. Will readers cheer for older beginners, the way they do for young ones? David Berner’s memoir suggests that the answer is “yes.” His place at the bottom of the totem pole contrasts sharply with his success in broadcasting. And yet, as he bumbles along, trying to figure out how to make a positive impact on these kids, it is easy for me to cheer him on. I turn the pages, thinking, “Please grow.” “Please learn.”

Writing Prompt
In your own memoir, you might cringe at the mistakes and frustrations of starting over. Rediscovering these periods also highlights your courage. Write about a situation in your life that pushed you out of your comfort zone and forced you to take a new approach.

Writing Prompt
All memoir writers expose situations and emotions that most people keep hidden. We writers must learn new language arts. And we have to overcome reluctance and press on with tenacity. To get in touch with your vulnerability and courage, write a scene that shows you overcoming some emotional obstacle on your writing journey.

Second Coming of Age

At the beginning of the 21st century, more of us stay active well past the traditional retirement years. So how do we find meaning during our extended years? Stories like “Accidental Lessons” are perfect demonstrations of how such a “second act” can succeed.

David Berner’s new career is not just about regaining his earning power. In order to feel good about himself he needs to help young people feel good about themselves. He needs these kids as much as they need him. And even though as a new teacher he doesn’t know all the procedures of his position, he knows enough about life and love.

Through the memoir, he shows his sometimes-clumsy attempt to let his students understand he cares about them. In some cases his effort pays off, providing support to the kids and meaning to the teacher. I find the book to be a wonderful exploration of one man’s effort to create a more worthwhile life than the one he constructed the first time.

Teachers serve kids (and readers) in exchange for a sense of purpose

I love the fact that David Berner finds meaning through teaching. This is the third inspiring high-school teaching book I’ve read. The first two were “Teacher Man,” by Frank McCourt, and “Freedom Writer’s Diary” by Erin Gruell. In each of these books, an adult pours out information and support in the hope that children will grow. In exchange for their effort, they achieve their own sense of purpose.

Each of these teachers then wrested stories from their mundane experiences. By turning life into story, they created additional social value from their effort. I didn’t have to leave my home in order to vicariously experience their sense of purpose and uplift, and to learn more about my own years in a classroom, through the eyes of a teacher.

In the external world, David Berner traded in a glitzy career for an incredibly unglamorous one. However, inside himself and inside the kids, beautiful things were happening. Just as he filled himself up with his journey, by sharing it, he filled me up too.

Writing Prompt
What sorts of other new skills or crafts do you want to learn, “before it is too late”? Write a scene in which you are taking steps to achieve those goals.


David W. Berner’s Home Page

Three Part Interview with Author David W. Berner
Interview Part 1
Interview Part 2
Interview Part 3
The author of the memoir Accidental Lessons answers questions about the craft and experience of writing the book.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Self-concept and memoirs: The power of purpose

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

This is the fourth article in my series about using memoir reading and writing to deepen your understanding of your own self-concept. To start from the beginning, click here. Who Am I? 10 ways memoir reading and writing helps clarify identity,

In his memoir, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” psychologist Viktor Frankl observed that a person who lacks purpose is susceptible to a variety of ills. According to Frankl’s theory, we live to the fullest only when we pursue a goal greater than ourselves. Abraham Maslow offers a slightly different slant on the issue of desire. His famous Hierarchy of Needs describes how our sense of purpose evolves from the most basic physical requirements for food and shelter, up through safety, pride, and recognition. At the very top of the hierarchy are transcendent goals like creativity, spirituality and service.

In many memoirs, and certainly the ones I enjoy the most, these energizing psychological principles leap off the pages. In the beginning of each memoir, the protagonist burns with some sort of desire, and then through the course of events, the character matures and begins to develop a deeper understanding of purpose.

To make your memoir as compelling as possible, search for your central mission. What drove you from day to day? When you find it, you will be giving yourself as well as your readers a gift. The wind in your sails that has propelled you through the years, also propels your reader through the pages.

Viktor Frankl, “Man’s search for meaning.” Frankl keeps himself alive during internment in Nazi death camps by helping fellow prisoners. He also dreams of someday helping people in the world. For the rest of his life, he follows this dream, promoting his system of Logotherapy, based on the notion that finding your true purpose is the antidote to modern ills.

Davis, Jenkins, and Hunt, “The Pact.” Three boys in northern New Jersey band together to overcome the influences of their tough urban environment. They help each other become doctors. Then they return to their community to inspire other struggling young men to follow the same path.

Greg Mortenson, “Three Cups of Tea.” As a young man interested only in climbing mountains, Mortenson finds his true calling when he stumbles into a village where poor people save his life and offer him a place in their homes. He vows to build a school for their children, and his work evolves into an international charity that builds schools for poor children in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Purpose interrupted

In any good story, as in any full-featured life, there are ups and downs. When our sense of purpose stalls or derails, it can feel not only like the death of a dream, but like a small death of the self. How do we get back into the game of life when our best effort failed? The story of resurrecting self after such setbacks reveals the courage and resilience of the human spirit. Many of the memoirs on my bookshelf tell about such complex journeys. These examples may help you discover how purpose played out in your own story.

Dani Shapiro, “Slow Motion.” This author entered a prestigious college, a powerful first step that would set the stage for her life as a writer. Then she hit a snag. A seducer showered her with flattery, gifts, and drugs, and she almost lost everything. The climb back to purpose shows her resilience. In fact, in a sense, it was this call to higher purpose that pulled her out of the abyss.

Janice Erlbaum, “Have you found her?” The author was homeless as a young girl. As an adult she returned to a shelter to help homeless kids. When her good intentions missed their mark, she shows her vulnerability and also gives us the chance to learn about human nature along with her. Her experience makes me wonder about the profound suffering possible in life, the desire to help, the limits of that help, and the degree to which you have to grow wiser yourself in order to heal others.

David Berner, “Accidental Lessons.” The author was a successful radio newscaster who, in mid-life, realized his career had only satisfied him externally. Internally he was drying up. Berner found deeper meaning by spending a year teaching in an inner city school. His memoir offers an example of discovering a deeper calling the second time around.

How did I find my purpose?

Like Dani Shapiro, my life presents an example, of a failure to launch. When my original goal of becoming a doctor fell apart, I fell into a spiritual void. With no reason to do anything, I lost interest in turning the pages of my own life. Stumbling in the dark, I came upon a belief system that prevented my spiritual demise, and I gradually built myself back to mental health. And like David Berner, in my fifties I began searching for a career that would allow me more opportunities to work with people. Eventually I found my calling to people find their story. This mission is providing me more enthusiasm about life than I experienced since I was a teen.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene which shows what you longed for. Did  you find fulfillment at your paid job, or a volunteer job, a hobby, or with your family, or community service. Look for places when your life connected with a larger social purpose.

Link to other articles in this series

Who Am I? 10 ways memoir reading and writing helps clarify identity

Self-concept and memoir – launching problems and identifying with a group

Recovering self-concept after trauma

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

In your memoir, how does your character grow?

by Jerry Waxler

At the beginning of Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open,” the young protagonist hit tennis balls because his father ordered him to do so. As he grew older, he incorporated his father’s demands into his own motivation. As he won more and more games, inside himself, he knew something was missing. The book is essentially a search for that missing ingredient. Agassi transforms from a kid who wants to win, to an adult who wants to understand why he is alive. Eventually he realizes that working only for his own wealth and fame is not enough. The payoff of the story comes from his impulse to help underprivileged kids.

Agassi’s story offers an excellent model for a good memoir. The main character has flaws and moral dilemmas that set the story in motion. Through the course of events, he must solve all sorts of problems related to these flaws. By the end, something has shifted inside him, some lesson learned, some demon conquered. As I close this book, his  increased wisdom fills me with hope, a feeling that motivates me to recommend the book to my friends.

Most memoirs that I love end along similar lines, showing how the protagonist grows wiser. For example, at the beginning of “Here if you need me,” by Kate Braestrup, the protagonist was suddenly widowed. By the end, she didn’t call her husband back, but she did gain beautiful insights into the cycle of life and death. Brooke Shields in “Down Came the Rain” emerged from her post-partum depression with a more realistic, less idealized image of mommy-hood. Bill Strickland in “Ten Points” couldn’t undo the abuse he experienced as a child. Instead, he learned that embracing the horror of those memories led to inner peace.

That requirement for closure at the end of a story often stymies aspiring writers, who can’t at first visualize the satisfying ending that occurred during their own lives. They are afraid that if they report the events that actually happened, the reader will not feel particularly informed or uplifted. This question leads to the heart of the memoir genre. Our responsibility as writers is not just to repeat events but to share a creative way of looking at those events. Finding this shape, this wrapper, this satisfying ending is one of our most important challenges.

Even though all storytellers must end with a satisfying conclusion, memoir writers don’t have the luxury of being able to change the events to suit their needs. Instead, we must adjust the meaning, the implications, the interpretation. The typical exquisitely satisfying memoir does not arise from a perfect confluence of events, but from the wise reflection that shows what the protagonist has learned. Naturally when you first lived through experiences, the lessons did not leap out ready-made. The wisdom occurs to you later, when you go back to look for it, making the satisfying conclusion of your memoir as much a gift to you as it is to the reader.

Even though Agassi lived an interesting life, the structure of his memoir did not automatically arise from that interesting life. Consider an alternate structure. He could have ended his memoir with his fame and his marriage to one of the greatest tennis players of all time, Steffi Graf. But that happy ending would have made it just another forgettable celebrity memoir.

Instead, he and his ghost writer J. R. Moehringer focused on the inner journey, showing how he found a deeper set of values. He won at tennis, but his real love turned out to be helping children get an education. This expansion of his sense of social responsibility is known in literary analysis as a character arc. But I consider it to be more than just the reason to read a book. My term for it is “ending on higher moral ground” and I think it is a chance to find the value in living a life. Agassi found his true calling when he began to play tennis not just for himself but to raise money for those kids, a conclusion that leaves me with hope not only about Andre Agassi’s life, but the possibility for me to live a meaningful life, as well.

Writing Prompt
In your own story, find the values, the inner strengths, and beliefs that developed over time. Compare your character at the beginning and at the end of your proposed memoir. Write (or find) a scene at the beginning of the story which shows the flaw in your initial thinking. Through the course of the book, show a couple of lessons that led you to higher ground. Write (or find in your manuscript) a scene that shows the more mature reaction that will let the reader understand the development of your character, your maturity, or some other quality that will give your reader hope about the journey of your and their life.


This is part of a multi-part essay about Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.”

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.